My wife and I recently saw the Jurassic World trailer in the cinema, and at its end we turned to each other and said, “Nope.” It was wall-to-wall character clichés. There was the stiff-necked, over-groomed, cold career woman; the brilliant scientist who smiles about an achievement that we all know is going to kill a lot of people because movie scientists are always stupider than regular folks; the kids who get into trouble and must be rescued; and the rumpled manly man who is two steps away from pounding his chest and proclaiming his supremacy. What he actually says is, “If we do this, we do it MY way.”
Make that one step away.
Apparently the special effects are fabulous, but at a certain point, extra-fab effects aren’t enough to overcome stale screenwriting that depends on hoary clichés and pathetic, atavistic sexism. And I appreciate that the director of Jurassic World put all of that into the trailer so we could avoid wasting money on the film.
I’ve read a few reviews, which seem equally divided between “awesome special effects and great fun if you can forget about the cheesy writing and rampant sexism,” and “such bad writing and sexism that even the special effects can’t make up for it.”
Marlow Stern says in his Daily Beast review (which is titled “Jurassic World: A Big, Dumb, Sexist Mess”):
As Claire and Owen travel through the dino-infested rainforests in search of the missing children, he begins to loosen her up through good ol’ fashioned sweet-talkin’. For God knows what reason, Claire is still sporting her work blouse and heels and is very much the distressed damsel, but what do you know, after a few witty barbs he convinces her to roll up her sleeves and tie her shirt in a bow. More sweaty forest shenanigans, and she loses the shirt. And then the heels. Once they’ve emerged from woods, and after avoiding certain death several times, she’s born again: a sweaty, humorous, maternal woman who’s severed her ties to her job and is only concerned with saving her two [nephews]. Oh, and she’s got a man, too.
Jurassic Park didn’t have any of this gendered nonsense—and it was made back in 1993. In Spielberg’s film, which holds up remarkably well, the two protagonists, played by Sam Neill and Laura Dern, are on equal footing. They’re both brilliant doctors who each evade and kick their fair share of scary dino ass. And its patchy sequel, The Lost World, had a kickass woman in the lead, played by Julianne Moore. This new entry is a big step back for a franchise that prided itself on featuring courageous, complex women.
On the other end of the screenwriting spectrum is the Netflix series Sense8, which my wife and I just binge-watched, blitzing through all 12 episodes in four days. It was created, written and produced by the Wachowskis (The Matrix) and J. Michael Straczynski, who has my undying respect for penning the seminal science fiction series Babylon 5. As is typical for JMS, the screenplay is light on clichés and heavy on philosophy.
The people who love Jurassic World will probably hate Sense8. This series expects its viewers to pay attention. It expects us to figure out the bigger picture at the same rate that the characters do, and to do so while simultaneously getting to know eight different characters in eight different locations living very different lives in different cultures. There are four women and four men, all of whom are smart and none of whom pound their chest to proclaim, “If we do this, we do it MY way.” The whole point of Sense8 is that these eight people all have their own skill sets and perspectives to offer the collective, and that they are better off working together than any of them can be alone.
The settings are a delight, bouncing us between San Francisco, Chicago, London (and Iceland), Berlin, Seoul, Mumbai, Nairobi, and Mexico City. The diversity is notable, not just in gender but also in ethnicity and sexuality. There are long conversations about art, religion, philosophy, and how the physical violence others do to us sometimes pales next to the emotional violence we do to ourselves. It is a thinking person’s series.
Which is probably why the professional critics on Rotten Tomatoes give it a 69% rating, stating that “Some of the scenarios border on illogical, but the diverse characters and the creative intersections between their stories keep…Sense8 compelling.”
I can’t remember the last time I saw lack of logic touted on Rotten Tomatoes as a reason to downgrade a film or series. At any rate, the unwashed masses don’t seem to agree with that assessment: the audience rating for Sense8 is 91 percent.
In Jurassic World, you can watch a macho man convert a shrewish woman into a “properly” maternal female. In Sense8, you can watch a gay telenovela heartthrob, who specializes in playing macho men, feel the effects of his first period thanks to his physical connection to one of his cluster mates. The female sensate who actually has her period just rolls her eyes, sighs, and unwraps a tampon. The male sensate reacts with tears, high emotion, and complaints of “My stomach hurts! I think it’s a tumor!” At which point probably half of the viewing audience remembered their first periods and nodded understandingly.
More and more, it seems, the best entertainment is not on the big screen…unless one defines entertainment solely as “spectacular special effects.” It seems that is the one category the movie industry can still win.